Auditory Processing Problems in Children on the Autism Spectrum

"Is it common for children on the autism spectrum to have auditory processing difficulties?"

ASD Level 1 (High-Functioning Autism) has been described as a social/communication problem. Processing auditory information is a crucial component of social communication, and some children on the autism spectrum have problems processing this information.

One problem occurs when the child hears speech sounds, but does not perceive the meaning of the sounds (e.g., if someone says the word ‘blew,’ the child might hear the sound clearly, but not understand the meaning). Sometimes the lack of speech comprehension is interpreted by parents and educators as a behavioral problem, when in fact the child simply isn’t able to retrieve the meaning at that moment.

The underlying reason for auditory processing problems in ASD may originate in a part of the child’s brain. Research has shown that the hippocampus is neurologically immature in children on the autism spectrum. The hippocampus is responsible for sensory input, learning and memory. Information is transferred from the senses to the hippocampus where it is processed. Then, the information is transferred to the cerebral cortex for long-term storage.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Due to the fact that auditory information is processed in the hippocampus, in children on the autism spectrum, the information may not be accurately transferred to long-term memory. In addition, auditory processing problems may be linked to other autistic traits (e.g., anxiety, confusion in social situations, inattentiveness, etc.).

Auditory Processing Disorder—

ASD children with Auditory Processing Disorder can't process the information they hear in the same way “typical” children can, because their ears and brain don't fully coordinate. These “special needs” kids often don’t recognize subtle differences between sounds in words – even when the sounds are loud and clear enough to be heard. This issue usually occurs when there is a significant degree of background noise going on.

Kids with Auditory Processing Disorder are thought to hear normally, because they can usually detect sounds and speech that are delivered one-by-one in a quiet environment. Children who can normally detect sounds in ideal listening conditions are not considered to have hearing problems. So, children with this disorder don’t have a loss of hearing, but have a hearing problem in the sense that they don’t process auditory information normally. If this auditory deficit isn’t identified and managed early, many of these young people will have speech and language delays – as well as academic problems.

The five main problem areas that can affect both home and school tasks in ASD children with Auditory Processing Disorder are:
  1. Auditory attention – the youngster can't stay focused on listening long enough to complete a task
  2. Auditory cohesion – higher-level listening tasks are difficult (e.g., drawing inferences from conversations, understanding jokes and riddles, comprehending verbal math problems, etc.)
  3. Auditory discrimination – the youngster has difficulty hearing the difference between words or sounds that are similar (e.g., buy/fly), which can affect following directions, reading, spelling, writing skills, etc.
  4. Auditory figure-ground – the youngster can't pay attention if there is noise in the background
  5. Auditory memory – the youngster has difficulty remembering information (e.g., directions, lists, study materials, homework assignments, etc.)

Auditory Processing Disorder is an often misunderstood problem, because many of the behaviors noted above also appear in other disorders (e.g., learning disabilities, ADHD, anxiety, depression). This is why proper diagnosis is crucial. To diagnose Auditory Processing Disorder, an audiologist will administer a series of tests in a sound-treated room. These tests require the child to attend to a variety of signals and to respond to them by way of repetition, pushing a button, or in some other method. Also, other tests that measure the auditory system's physiologic responses to sound may be administered.

Once a diagnosis of Auditory Processing Disorder is made, the nature of the disorder is determined. There are many types of auditory processing deficits and, because every youngster is different, the disorder may manifest itself in a variety of ways. Thus, it is necessary to determine the type of auditory deficit a given youngster exhibits so that individualized treatment strategies can be recommended that address his specific areas of difficulty.

If you think your youngster may have a problem processing words and/or sounds, consider the following questions:
  • Are conversations hard for your youngster to follow?
  • Are noisy environments upsetting to your youngster?
  • Are verbal math problems difficult for your youngster?
  • Does your youngster have difficulty following directions – even simple ones?
  • Does your youngster have reading, spelling, writing, or other speech-language difficulties?
  • Does your youngster's behavior and performance improve in quieter settings?
  • Is abstract information difficult for your youngster to comprehend?
  • Is your youngster disorganized and forgetful?
  • Is your youngster easily distracted?
  • Is your youngster unusually bothered by loud or sudden noises?

 ==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

How to help ASD children with Auditory Processing Disorder—

Techniques applied at home and in the classroom can help with some of the behavioral issues associated with Auditory Processing Disorder. Since it is common for children with this disorder to have difficulty following directions, for example, some of the strategies that can help are listed below:
  1. Acknowledge that Auditory Processing Disorder is real. Associated symptoms and behaviors are NOT within your youngster's control.
  2. Ask your youngster to (a) repeat the directions back to you, and to (b) keep repeating them aloud (either to you or to himself) until the directions are completed.
  3. Assign regular and realistic chores (e.g., keeping a neat room and desk).
  4. Build your youngster's self-esteem.
  5. Encourage good eating and sleeping habits.
  6. For directions that are to be completed at a later time, writing notes, wearing a watch, and maintaining a household routine can help.
  7. Teach general organization and scheduling skills.
  8. Have your youngster look at you when you're speaking.
  9. Keep in regular contact with teachers about your youngster's progress. Kids with Auditory Processing Disorder aren't typically put in special education programs. Instead, educators can make it easier by (a) providing additional study aids (e.g., an assignment pad or a tape recorder), and (b) altering seating arrangements so the youngster can sit in the front of the room or with his back to the window.
  10. Maintain a peaceful, organized lifestyle as much as possible.
  11. Provide your youngster with a quiet study place.
  12. Since most children with Auditory Processing Disorder have difficulty hearing in noisy environments, it's important to reduce the background noise at home and at school.
  13. Speak at a slightly slower rate and at a mildly increased volume when talking to your child.
  14. Teach your youngster to notice noisy environments and move to quieter places when listening is necessary.
  15. Use simple, expressive sentences with your child.

The degree to which your youngster’s auditory deficits will improve with therapy can’t be determined in advance. While some kids with the disorder experience significant improvement – and even "grow out of" their disorder, others may exhibit some residual degree of deficit throughout the lifespan. Nonetheless, with appropriate intervention, all kids with Auditory Processing Disorder can learn to become active participants in their own learning, listening and communication success.

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